The Sweet and the Bitter

In Essays, Philosophy, Self Improvement, Stoicism

In my seventh month living in Cambodia, I went from living in a crummy bedroom in a shared apartment with no windows, not hot water and a whole host of insects to a luxurious flat overlooking one of the best hotels in town.

I have previously mentioned how I didn’t feel my life had taken a turn for the worse just because my living conditions weren’t up to par with what I had experienced in the past. By accepting the fact that my happiness and tranquility are independent of my surroundings, I become impervious of my surroundings.

So, given this fact, why did I move out again? It was quite simple, the term was up and so we all had to move out. I now have a flat which is six times more expensive and has a lot of natural light and all the amenities I could wish for. Of course, I didn’t need to find such a apartment, I could easily have found a similar crummy apartment for a fraction of the cost.

But I didn’t.

Am I being a hypocrite? Quite possibly, but exploring that question is not the point of this essay. I do enjoy living in a nicer flat, but it’s what is referred to as a preferred indifferent.

I’ve written about this before, we should only truly care for the things that are under our direct control, everything else pales in comparison. The things that we can control – if we’re lucky – are our thoughts, actions and judgements, everything else can be easily taken away or destroyed by other people. Our bodies are a clear example of this. While it may appear that we are in control – most of us can lift our right arm above our heads when we wish – that is actually not the case. I need to only chain that arm and that apparent freedom and control disappears. That wouldn’t be very difficult to do, but to try and change your thoughts or your behaviour, especially if you are aware and practice using sound judgement, is virtually impossible.

If we learn to cultivate relative indifference to the things that are not under our control (like the size and finish of our apartments) and focus of the things that really matter, we will find ourselves enjoying life to the full.

Now of course I prefer to have money over not having money, to have health over sickness and life over death, but at what cost? Would I want to earn millions if I had to become morally bankrupt? Absolutely not, because acting in accordance to my own ethical framework is something that is under my control and thus is far more important that the size of my bank account. That’s why I don’t sell drugs, weapons and children for a living.

Want I want to discuss is how I appreciate the things I have now so much more because I experience living without them. Having lived my whole life with hot water, taking cold showers for almost six months was quite a wake up call – literally every morning.

Now I still enjoy having cold showers (apparently they are very good for one) but what I enjoy more is that I have the option to turn the knob and have hot water on command. This is something that I had never truly appreciated, and now I am thankful for at least once a day! Now multiply that feeling for almost every detail that makes up my new apartment and I have a thousand and one reasons to be thankful each and every day.

So my point is this: without the bitter, we wouldn’t enjoy the sweet. That’s the problem with “The West” as a society. So many of us are having it so good, having lifestyles that even a generation or two ago would have been unthinkable, that we don’t even realise how much we have. Because we have no experience of going without, we don’t appreciate the things we have.

Can you imagine a world where we achieved everything we want to achieve and had everything we want to have without any kind of struggle or hardship? Nothing would have any value, because it would be easily available at a snap of our fingers.

A great example of this is how we take the internet for granted. We an almost unlimited amount of information and educational resources, yet the average person spends most of their time online on social media and entertainment. Can you imagine explaining this to a university professor from one hundred years ago? He would be speechless, and quite rightly so.

None of us can fully escape this. I’m sure that without careful contemplation, I will get used to my new luxurious apartment and then slowly forget my previous experience and then stop being thankful for the place I call “home”.

However, we can try and fight this tendency by meditating (literally or figuratively) on how things could be worse, or how they actually have been worse in the past, and even how they might become worse in the future. This helps us to remember that most things are only transient, or “borrowed” as Epictetus put it.

Life itself is only transient, death is a necessary part of life: it’s what makes it special, precious, worth caring about. Without death, without pain, without sacrifice, none of this would be possible. Nothing would be worth doing. Death in inescapable and so we must face it and learn to accept and embrace it as a natural part of actually being alive in the first place.

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